Orders of the Day — Sudan (Female Circumcision)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th February 1949.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Snow.].

4.1 p.m.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

The Elder Pliny coined the phrase "Ex Africa semper aliquid novi"; in other words, "The dark Continent is full of surprises." But I hardly think that "surprise" is the correct word to describe the reaction of hon. Members when they read the memorandum, recently circulated, which was written by Miss Hills-Young. They were not only surprised; they were without exception horrified and revolted to learn that practically 100 per cent. of the girls in the Northern and Central Sudan are subjected to this form of mutilation in its most brutal form between the tender ages of four and ten, and that in many cases the operation is performed with a primitive instrument without any antiseptic precautions and without an anaesthetic, in the presence of a crowd of women who drown the child's shrieks with their babbling and ululating, and at the same time there is a background of noise from tomtoms and empty kerosene tins.

I do not propose to harrow the feelings of hon. Members or to disgust or sicken them by going into anatomical details about this mutilation, but this must be said in order that they may appreciate the full enormity of the crime which is being committed against the person of a woman in the Sudan who is subjected to this form of mutilation, especially in the severe form in which it is practised in the Northern and Central Sudan: henceforth she is not merely handicapped, and often disastrously so, as a wife and as a mother, but her entire being undergoes a most profound alteration which lasts for the rest of her days.

When I asked the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State a question on this subject recently, he admitted very frankly that he had not very much information. Let me ask him this: supposing this mutilation had taken the form of cutting off an ear or a hand or gouging out an eye of all the women in the Northern Sudan—and those mutilations are much less severe in their consequences than the one I am talking about—does the right. hon. Gentleman really suppose that public opinion would have tolerated the continuance of such mutilations, for nearly half a century, or that he himself could have risen in his place and admitted that he knew very little about it? I think not. The truth of the matter is that this grisly skeleton has been in existence all these years in the cupboard of the Sudan, and that it has been masked by a sort of conspiracy of silence backed up by masterly inactivity at the highest level. So long as that attitude persists, it is absolutely useless to think that any steps can be taken to put an end to this evil.

The right hon. Gentleman ventured an opinion that the legislation passed in 1946 and the propaganda which had followed it, had mitigated what he quite rightly described as a revolting and repulsive practice. I know he is very sympathetic over this question, but I must warn him here and now that wishful thinking will not get anybody anywhere over this question. Let him get these facts firmly into his mind. In all the large towns—Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman, El Obeid and Port Sudan, which have a combined population of over 300,000—this mutilation in its severest form is being practised on practically 100 per cent. of the female children. Moreover, it has spread in comparatively recent times and it is known to be spreading in the West, where in every case the severe mutilation is ousting the less severe form. It has appeared in the Nuba Mountains, where until quite recently it was entirely unknown. It is practised, in the most severe form of all, amongst the Bejaspeaking tribes. There is a considerable amount of evidence that it is spreading amongst the tribes of the South, such as the Dinka and the Shilluk.

The right hon. Gentleman was in error when he said the Sudan Government had not approved of the lesser form of procedure. Clearly, they did so when they amended the penal code in 1946—not 1926, as he said; I think that was a slip—which made it a criminal offence for everyone, including the victim, to take part in the performance of this mutilation. But it did permit the mildest form of mutilation, which is commonly known, in fact, as Government sunna. It is, at least, something that the severe form of mutilation has at last been made a penal offence, something for which administrators and doctors in the Sudan have been pressing for 50 years without, until 1946, getting any real action taken at the top level.

It would be very easy to condemn the rulers of the Sudan for not having taken strong and swift action to put an end to this mutilation at the very outset after our re-occupation of that country, but the reconstruction of the Sudan from the wreckage we inherited in 1898 was a problem which called for the exercise of the very highest qualities of statesmanship and administration. I can say without fear of contradiction from any quarter that no finer body of men could have been found for that task than those under whose care, guidance and friendship the modern Sudanese nation is coming to life. Far too little is known of their achievement, which deserves pride of place in the story of our tropical administration.

If the Sudanese have been unduly slow and hesitant in taking action, it is well to bear in mind that the eradication of harmful tribal customs inherited from a remote age presents the administrator in tropical Africa with one of the most delicate and difficult problems he is called upon to handle. But the delay at least has made possible in 1948 what would have been quite impossible in 1898, because in the meantime the Sudanese are emerging into nationhood and they have already travelled a long way along the path of civilisation. But as long as the Sudanese allow their girls to be mutilated in the barbarous way which is now done, so long will they stand condemned in the eyes of all civilised people as being themselves barbarous and uncivilised. They know this perfectly well and the one bright factor is that amongst the educated and intelligent Sudanese—a rapidly growing body—and amongst the leaders of political thought and religious belief, there is now a definite feeling that this practice of mutilation is one that ought to be condemned and abolished.

No one would be so foolish as to suggest that this mutilation can be put to an end overnight; it will be a tong and uphill job, and the great obstacle to progress is the attitude of the men, who are far too much inclined in this instance to shelter behind the skirts of the women and to put the blame on them, saying that the women are resistant to any idea of change. What really prevents progress or any reform being carried out is the attitude of the men themselves who will not accept girls as brides unless they have been subjected to this gross form of mutilation.

Religion is also quoted in defence. There is absolutely no sanction in Mohammedan law for the gross form of mutilation. The most that can be said of that is that the Koran presupposes the existence of the lesser form. The explanation of this doubtless lies in the fact that before Mohammed's day the lesser form of mutilation was universally practised amongst the Arabs, and Mohammed found it advisable to close his eyes to something which he certainly deplored but found it politically inadvisable to condemn. He quite clearly does condemn the severe form of mutilation in giving only a very guarded sanction to the lesser form. It does seem that this curious result has followed: by practising a mutilation which, in its original and lesser form, was supposed to promote cleanliness, and by then substituting the severe form the Sudanese have merely succeeded in making their women unclean, not merely from the hygienic point of view—about which there is no possible shadow of doubt— but actually from the point of view of the Mohammedan religion itself.

The right hon. Gentleman will doubtless tell us what steps and practical measures are being taken by the Administration of the Sudan to eradicate this practice. Education will undoubtedly pave the way to reform, as it has done in so many other spheres in the world. But little or nothing can be done about the grandmothers and so-called wise women in the villages, because they have got a very strong vested interest indeed in seeing that this practice is continued. They will die out in time; the young generation is growing up, and it may be expected that the girls of today, even though they have been mutilated, who are imbibing new ideas and a new outlook, and who will in turn become mothers and grandmothers, will set their faces against the continuation of this horrible practice.

However unwillingly one may be driven to this conclusion, I think it is perfectly clear that the most practical, indeed the only practical line to take at the present time, is to permit a lesser form of mutilation. It is well known that the Government sunna is not acceptable to the Sudanese; but they would be prepared to accept a slightly more serious mutilation which goes by the name of the Egyptian sunna: that form is at least 75 per cent. less damaging than the form now being practised, its great advantage being that it does not interfere with childbirth, and does not necessitate the carrying out of the ghastly repair operation which has to be done after childbirth in the case of every woman who has been subjected in earlier life to the severe form of mutilation.

It ought to be made illegal for anyone except properly trained midwives to perform this operation, and every possible effort should be made to see that it is done in Government hospitals wherever they are available. There were two ladies, the Misses Woolf, who did work of outstanding merit in the Sudan, both of whom I am glad to say are still alive. It may be a comfort to them to know that the trail they blazed is being followed up, and that the work they started has borne great fruit and will continue to do so. But I think that the Administration failed in not appreciating exactly what the Misses Woolf had done. It is true that the work is going on, but when those two ladies laid down the burden, the time had come for the Administration to appoint a certain number of women doctors in the Sudan. One has only to recollect what women doctors have done in India, because of the facilities they had for entering the remote regions, to appreciate that exactly what benefits would follow the appointment of women doctors in the Sudan.

The Administration will have to take far stronger action than anything it has done up to date to prevent this practice from spreading among the Nilotic tribes in the Southern Sudan, to the Dinka, Shilluk, Jur and Zande, for example. The practice is spreading. It tends to spread among the de-tribalised women who move into the towns in the South, where they come into contact with the northern Sudanese. The motive for mutilation here is very largely an economic one. Parents know that in disposing of a female child to an Arab merchant the bride price will be far bigger if the unfortunate child has been mutilated in her early life. Snobbishness comes into it. Black women are every bit as susceptible as are their white sisters to the tyranny of fashion. There is a strong incentive even for grown women in the South to undergo this operation when they come into contact with their less dark sisters from the north.

If the practice is allowed to take firm hold of the Nilotic tribes it will spread like wildfire. Everybody knows what happens when a new idea is introduced to these tribes. There is every danger that it will flow into Uganda, the Belgian Congo and French Equatorial Africa. If that happens, irreparable damage will be done to the people of Southern Sudan and Central Africa in general. There is nothing religious behind this practice at all. It will become a tribal custom among the pagan people, and infinitely more difficult for the Administration to deal with, as anybody knows who has had anything to do with administration in Central Africa. The tribal chiefs are opposed to this practice spreading among their people, and it is up to the Administration to support these chiefs in every way it can.

I have but one more word to say. I served for many years in the Sudan and I greatly regret that I should have been forced to raise this subject in this public way. Let the Sudanese realise that they have tremendous friends in this country among those who have had the privilege of serving there. All of us are anxious to see that country develop, and we will do everything we possibly can to help. They must understand, in regard to what I have been saying today, that for the last 50 years only informed opinion has known about this ugly fact in the Sudan, but that today it is is different. The Sudanese are making rapid strides towards self-government. Now they stand before the bar of public opinion, which will demand of them not merely an answer but action in the years ahead.

My sole reason for raising this matter is in the hope that everything will be done to help. There are plenty of young Sudanese in this country now. I should like to see them banding together and condemning this practice, which will come to an end only when the Sudanese men themselves say that they will have nothing to do with women as brides who have been grossly mutilated in their early life.

4.20 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Leah Manning Mrs Leah Manning , Epping

I want to add my plea to that made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence). It may be said that this is a matter for the Sudanese, and indeed that is true, but no woman who has had the advantage of living in a free and liberal country such as we have in the West, and in most parts of the world in modern times, can fail to feel deep compassion when they know of the suffering, the pain and, indeed, the terrible psychological effects which this mutilation brings upon these very young girls throughout the Sudan. It must be true that every hon. Member here wants to help the Sudanese people to understand exactly how bewildered public opinion is here—it is our condominium—that a people so intelligent and so adaptable as the Sudanese, can still carry out a ritual which has its origin in the dark atavistic regions of their minds.

That puzzles us, and we want them to understand how we feel about this, and particularly we want the young men to understand how we feel about it. We want them to understand that we believe that no country can move forward quicker than the pace at which its women move forward and that one cannot have a country which is half free and half hobbled—and these women certainly are hobbled in every way in their move forward into freedom. Once the men of the Sudan understood it, how much more quickly they would move forward to the intelligent and enlightened ways which most of them really desire.

I ask the Minister of State to help us in what so many of us who have such a high respect for the people of the Sudan want to do. He is not up against a dark impenetrable wall as he might have been some years ago. There are great signs of change in the Sudan already. As has already been mentioned, there are great leaders of religious and scholastic thought, men who are highly educated, who do not allow this mutilation in the case of their own daughters. That has required a very great deal of courage on their part, but it has taken place, even in the homes of the leaders of religious thought in the Sudan.

The names of the Misses Woolf have been mentioned. Miss Woolf was the matron of the first maternity home at Omdurman, and she did a most remarkable work. She did a work which has probably led a great many women of the Sudan of whom we do not know to become heroines in their own homes. As mothers of little girls they have fought against the old women—they are the hardest of them all to break down; sometimes even the men cannot fight against them for the things they require to do in the interests of the progress of their country—and have been able to secure release for their own young daughters. That has only been possible because women like Miss Woolf could go into their homes and talk about this intimate and delicate thing to these women.

I ask my right hon. Friend to say if he can by consultation and advice help the people of the Sudan to get the right kind of doctors. He should not say that this is impossible. He has only to discuss with the great women gynaecologists of this country like Janet Vaughan, principal of Somerville, the right kind of doctors to be sent there. If he will do that, he will be giving the people of the Sudan inestimable help towards shaking off this ritual—it is nothing more than that—and setting these women free from the shadow which crosses their lives so early.

4.24 p.m.

The Minister of State (Mr. McNeil):

Of course, the Government and, I am sure, the House are indebted to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence) for once more publicising this subject. No one can take exception to the spirit which both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) bring to the subject. I must say that I slightly resented the suggestion at the beginning of his speech, which he subsequently modified, that the Government were complacent about this subject. It is not a comparison at all to say that opinion in this country or even opinion in the Sudan would not permit such a multilation as the removal of an eye or an ear and then compare that with this mutilation. There are more obvious forms of mutilation to which opinion in all parts of the world instinctively reacts, but in this case we are dealing with something which is not instinctive but which is traditional, which is superstitious, which is near religious, and which certainly is associated with sexual ignorance. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping, in an otherwise unexceptionable speech, said that it is just a ritual, but we have a correspondence going on in every newspaper in this country today about whether we shall tackle some forms of sexual ignorances which are abroad in this country.

I agree with the tribute which the hon. Gentleman paid to the Sudanese Service. It is a great service. But the difficulties, the prejudices, the deep feelings that are aroused upon this subject are for most of us incalculable. As recently as 1946 there was a riot in the Blue Nile Province because of the issue of an ordinance dealing with this barbaric, repulsive, cruel process which is unjustifiable medically and biologically by any modern standard. A riot in 1946, and that in not the worst province.

Publicity is of course of great value, and as my hon. Friend said, it is important that the emerging, the educated, the leading people of the Sudan must understand our bewilderment at and repugnance to their tolerance of these happenings. Some things are being done. I am glad to be able to say to my hon. Friend and to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that already one woman doctor has been appointed by the Sudan Government, and that others are being appointed. There again, however, we would handicap these women in their tremendous job if we as much as suggested that the primary reason why they are being appointed is to continue this kind of education. The education in this respect must be related to the context of general progress; of that I am sure.

I am disturbed by the evidence which the hon. and gallant Gentleman offered about the spread to other areas. It is not confirmed by the information at my disposal, but I know that my right hon. Friend, with me, would want to have it examined most carefully. It is impossible to get accurate figures, but for the Khartoum area I am assured by the Government that the decrease in the practice of the pharaonic system of circumcision has decreased by 75 per cent. in the last 20 years. I do not pretend for a second that I could hope that is a typical figure. The Khartoum area is the most open and literate area, in which we have been able to exert much influence. However, that is a not unconsoling figure—a 75 per cent. decrease in these, the worst practices.

I agree that it will have to be a matter of education. I do not want to conclude without quoting from Sir Angus Gillan when laying the foundation stone at Khartoum Civil Hospital. He addressed himself to Sudanese medicals and to their professional leaders upon this acute subject and said: To your intellectual and moral courage, to which I have referred, and to your inherent humanity, I pray that I may safely leave the verdict and its execution. Of course, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, in the long run we cannot do anything but rely upon the Sudanese people themselves, no one else can excise this practice. Of course, His Majesty's Government will continue to watch this carefully, will be grateful for any suggestions which may be passed on to the Sudan Government, or which may be jointly undertaken with the Egyptian Government, and will indeed be careful to see that this Debate has the maximum publicity which we can achieve in the Sudan.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.